Lexus' mid-size RX crossover was a segment buster upon its arrival in 1998 and has remained in top form as a leader, not follower, despite an onslaught of worthy rivals determined to chip away at hard-earned momentum.
The five-door vehicle debuted as one of the first luxury-type modes to take a mid-size, trunk-inspired SUV body and transform the ride to a more car-like experience while retaining the versatility of a hatchback; the genesis of the upmarket 'crossover' craze. Wisely, Lexus resisting the temptation to horseshoe another row into a vehicle designed from the get-go as a five-passenger.
The RX 350 remains by far the brand's best-selling vehicle and the only Lexus breaking into the coveted six-figure territory. During the 2013 calendar year, 103,920 units were sold in the U.S., up 9 percent from the previous year. The next closest Lexus product, the mid-size GS sedan, brought forth 72, 581 units.
As with its many Lexus stablemates, the RX provides cone-of-silence interior quietness with luxury-tuned suspension. Lexus remains the third best-selling luxury automaker in the U.S. in 2013 behind German stalwarts Mercedes-Benz and BMW, but ahead of fourth-place finisher Cadillac.
Chicagoans got a glimpse of the future at the 1997 Chicago Auto Show when Lexus showcased a thinly veiled concept, drawing more than its share of curiosity seekers. A year later, RX 300 was born. Upon its Gen Two 2004 model year redesign, powertrain updates to a 3.3-liter V-6 necessitated a name tweak to the RX 330. Since 2007, it's been updated in name to the RX 350, thanks to the 3.5-liter V-6 engine. A third-generation makeover in the 2010 model year saw evolutionary, not revolutionary interior and exterior updates. The mid-size RX was the first Lexus product assembled outside the manufacturer's Japan home base at a Cambridge, Ontario Canada facility. The Lexus brand debuted in 1989 as the luxury arm of Toyota, making 2014 a Silver Jubilee.
Updates for 2014 are minimal save for small tweaks to the pre-collision warning system (a stand-alone option) which now includes forward detection information. Once again, front-wheel drive or Chicago-friendly full-time, all-wheel drive is available.
The sole gas powertrain, a double-overhead cam, 24-valve V-6 cranks out 270 horsepower connected with a six-speed automatic transmission. A lengthy list of stand-alone options accompanies several available and at times combinable packages. Lexus offers the most gas-electric hybrids of any luxury automaker, including a pricier yet fuel efficient version of the 2014 RX 350 denoted as RX 450h (h designates 'hybrid').
But wait...there's more. A high-performance, lower-volume F-Sport edition, the 'RX F-Sport' features an eight-speed automatic transmission (with steering wheel paddle shifters) and firmer calibrated shocks and springs. A mesh-type finish also adorns the front grille while comfort and premium packages are standard. F-Sport is an all-wheel-drive exclusive. The 3.5-liter engine remains a constant. The RX 350 F-Sport debuted in the 2013 model year.
Our all-wheel drive RX 350 tester checked in at $41,160. A cadre of singular options and packages including a $1,340 Comfort Package, $5,020 Luxury Package and $2,775 Navigation System helped bring the bottom line to $53,104 including a $910 destination charge. Front-wheel drive 2014 editions start at $39,760. A performance-tuned F-Sport lists at $47,450.
The optional premium package includes leather-trimmed seats (best if this was standard all around), power moon roof, roof rails and power folding outside mirrors. A comfort package features Xenon high intensity headlamps and heated and vented front seats. A Luxury package adds wood trim on the heated steering wheel and rear cup holder, blind-spot monitoring and 19-inch five-spoke wheels. Navigation and comfort packages are prerequisite to the Luxury Package which includes all premium package contents.
During the next redesign, Lexus would be wise to add more standard content to this luxury product and simplify option packages.
Push-button start comes standard as part of the SmartAccess system combining touch-sensitive exterior door handles and a front-bucket seat that slowly powers backward two inches while the steering column tilts up and inward to ease egress. The opposite occurs when entering, sitting and activating the push start-stop button.
Lexus' second-generation 'remote touch interface' operates by the driver's right hand. A one-inch by one-and-a-half inch slightly elevated wiggle pad between the front buckets tilts sideways and depresses down, offering option selections through the back-set, seven-inch in-dash screen. The screen's deep positioning helps minimize sun glare. A long, narrow, rearward arched cushion acts as a rest pad easing wrist fatigue. Helping ease and speed the process are often-used 'map' and 'menu' push buttons directly ahead of the wiggle square reachable via fingertips. Climate controls may be handles through this touch interface or the 'old school' way via push buttons in the middle of the center column.
The flat, black instrument panel benefits from snow-white backlighting. A large storage bin, hinged at the back between the front buckets, includes inside USB/auxiliary jacks along with a 12-volt power outlet. As with many Toyota and some Lexus products, a single 12-ounce-cup-size beverage holder retracts down from the dashboard's far left side. The center stack column flows through the transmission shifter seamlessly into the beverage holder region between front bucket seats.
The 2014 edition includes the 'new face of Lexus,' a spindle-type grille between band-like headlight housing brought on board during the 2013 mid-cycle refresh. Chrome trim surrounds side windows with a flat, horizontal base rather than angled forward. The standard rear wiper swipes down from the top where the top spoiler acts as a shield. Most designs have the arm swiping up from the bottom. When lifted open, ample head clearance abounds for those six-feet two-inches and shorter. The power lift-gate and heated outside mirrors are standard.
Second-row seats fold down for 80.3 cubic feet of space; when up, a very usable 40.0 cubic feet remains. Rear travelers benefit from a spacious 37 inches of legroom, helping to accommodate three adult riders in comfort. Back seats also recline (40/20/40) and fold semi-flat onto seat cushions. For those of any age seeking visual stimulation in back, an optional rear entertainment system provides two seven-inch screens built into front seat headrests displaying video feeds from separate sources and individualized headphone jacks.
Bluetooth audio connectivity compatible with portable electronics comes standard along with a compact disc player and a three-month trial subscription to satellite radio.
The all-wheel drivetrain got put to the test during yet another 2014 snow storm and never flinched as the active torque control provided suitable traction even prior to the plow's arrival. This system also applies torque to all four wheels when slippage gets detected.
The rather large 19.2-gallon tank requires regular, 87 octane fuel. Expect average fuel economy in this luxury segment at 18 mpg city and 24 mpg highway for all-wheel-drive editions; add one mile per gallon highway with front-drive.
Lexus is in the process of a voluntary safety recall of 2012 and 2013 model year RX 350s involving antilock brake and traction control electronic circuit software that could intermittently turn off. Standard braking is not affected. Lexus received no reports of incidents concerning this recall. The 2014 RX 350 is not affected.
At A Glance
2014 RX 350
Price as tested: $53,104
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6
Overall Length: 187.8 inches
Overall Width: 74.2 inches
Wheelbase: 107.9 inches
Fuel economy: 18 mpg city, 24 mpg highway
Curb Weight: 4,343 pounds
Built: Ontario, Canada and Japan
Powertrain warranty: 72 months or 70,000 miles